Entrepreneurs Take Center Stage At The Int’l African Arts Festival

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IAAFThe 85-degree weather wasn’t the only thing heating up the July 4th holiday weekend that marked the 2011 International African Arts Festival (IAAF) at Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn. Vendors of the African Diaspora – from the U.S. and abroad – were in town selling their unique brand of home décor, artwork, linens,  batik clothing, beaded Masai-inspired jewelry, and handcrafts and furniture made of ebony, mahogany, and other materials indigenous to the African continent.

“As you enter, you’re in another world. It’s like an African marketplace. As the vendor coordinator, I greet people by saying hello in many dialects. I see people who attended last year’s event. They wear the clothing they bought last year and they go back to those vendors to say ‘Hey, I love this dress I bought from you. It’s beautiful’. Like Christmas, people save up money during the year in anticipation of spending it at the festival. They’re excited. It’s like a reunion of culture and family,” says Vendor Relations Coordinator Salima Moyo.

But like anything worth pursuing, a lot of hard work and dedication goes into the planning. According to Moyo, who’s been involved in the organization of the event for over 20 years, the committee has a debriefing meeting a few weeks after each event and then discusses ideas for the next year. Moyo says the event planners see IAAF as a “coming together of the community”. Everyone engaged in the project is in favor of supporting entrepreneurs. “I’ve been involved for 20 years. My father passed the baton to me. Now, my 19-year old son works on a major part of the festival. No one person does it all. We come together to implement the customs and values of the African Diaspora. The key to this event is longevity. It’s something we should have in our community for generations to come,” notes Moyo.

Despite the fact that there were fewer vendors in attendance this year, the festival has steadily gained popularity. Economics kept some of the frequent attendees away; some businesses have closed and others were unable to make the investment in the travel, fees, and preparation it takes to be a participating vendor. Nevertheless, this year brought vendors from Guyana, South America, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, East Africa, Brazil and Ghana. Locally, there were vendors from Harlem and Brooklyn, many of whom also showcase their wares at the Harlem Book Fair, Atlantic Antic, and other street festivals around the tri-state area.       

The other aspect to the festival is the tremendous support it takes to make it all possible. 98.7 Kiss FM, The Network Journal, Hot 97 FM and Artcurian.org acted as media partners; Council Member Leticia James helped secure the permit for the event and provided sponsorship; and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs awarded IAAF a $14,000 grant that helped cover a portion of the event’s arts, entertainment and educational activities.

“We receive strong support from elected officials like Charles Barron and Leticia James,” says IAAF Board Secretary Segun Shabaka. Shabaka says funding sources are crucial. Each year, the underwriting of the program costs over $200K…a big number considering in the past two years, IAAF has received only $30K in grant money and another $26K in donations at the front gate. There are also rent bills and phone bills to be paid on IAAF’s office, which is a year-round operation.

As for the event, “The biggest challenge is doing a lot with a little,” says Bashir Mchawi, chairman of the board. “We create this fantastic atmosphere with limited resources,” he says. Next year, he hopes to appeal to sponsors who would be willing to take specific parts of the festival and underwrite them. “For the past 40 years, we have held a crime-free, safe event. When we leave, the park is probably cleaner than when we arrived. It would be great to have someone underwrite what we spend on security and maintenance,” he adds.

Event organizers say a majority of the funding comes from grants, vendor membership (the cost to have a booth), and ‘business-to-business bartering’. For example, this year, someone offered to print and distribute flyers. In return, he was given a booth to sell his merchandise. “The festival is about economic empowerment. The storytelling and music and dance performances are the icing on the cake, but the festival is really an opportunity for businesses to grow and develop,” says Julia Shaw of Shaw Biz Group. And in this spirit of entrepreneurship, vendors rise for this occasion and abound. “This weekend, I made $10,000,” says a Tanzania-born vendor who sells high-end, eye-catching handcrafts. Netting this kind of bottom line, it’s safe to say she is looking forward to next year’s festival.